When you travel to West Sumatra and arrive at Minangkabau Airport in Padang, one of the first things you notice is the spectacular roof of the airport building. It looks like buffalo horns- not single, but double, even triple horns on both sides. And when you roam around Padang or other cities and towns in the province, you can see a lot of this style, everywhere. Why do they look like this? The Minangkabau houses are the pride of the local people. Let’s go on to explore this culture and its roots!
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The Minangkabau is one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia and the whole of Southeast Asia. They have developed a distinctive culture in the western part of Sumatra Island. But to understand them better, let’s dive into the history.
The origin of the Minangkabau people is unclear. In their “Tambo” literature is written that they are descendants of Alexander the Great (Iskandar Zulkarnain), but of course, it is highly uncertain- their language and their East Asian features are very different from the Hellenistic image of Alexander.
Scientists consider that Minangkabau and Malay people (who live today in Peninsular Malaysia) have a common ancestor and they were gradually divided in the past into two distinct ethnic groups. For probably 2000 years, the Minangkabau have embraced Hinduism and Buddhism. They developed an agricultural society in the highlands of the Barisan Mountains and established small local kingdoms.
Consequently, around the 7th century, these kingdoms were “engulfed” by larger kingdoms and empires like Srivijaya, and more. Then, something happened in the 13th century that changed their history and had a significant influence on their culture. Until that time they even hadn’t called themselves “Minangkabau” but “Minang Tamwan”.
The legend about the buffalo
In 1275, a military expedition sent by King Kertanegara of the neighboring Singhasari Kingdom came to the lands of West Sumatra to conquer it. The expedition was called Pamalayu, and the local kingdom that had to be conquered was the Malayu Kingdom.
However, according to a legend, a local leader proposed a deal with the Singhasari prince who led the expedition. To avoid bloodshed, they agreed to arrange a water buffalo battle from both sides and let the buffaloes fight instead of the people.
So, the Singhasaris chose a big, strong, and aggressive buffalo. But the local people chose a baby buffalo with sharpened horns. The baby buffalo approached the big one who didn’t see a threat and didn’t pay attention to it. Then, suddenly, the baby thrust its head under the big buffalo’s belly and its sharp horns punctured and killed it. Thus, the battle was over, and the Singhasari prince confessed his defeat.
From that moment, the buffalo and its horns became a symbol of the local people. They called themselves Minangkabau, which means “victorious buffalo”. The horns of the buffalo became their important cultural symbol- they started to build the roofs of their houses in the shape of buffalo horns.
About a century later, they built a strong kingdom called Pagaruyung. This kingdom remained until the 19th century, gradually embracing the Islamic religion. But although the new religion introduced new traditions and new architectural styles, especially in the mosques, the buffalo-style of the traditional Minangkabau houses remained until today.
You can see Minangkabau houses in most of the province of West Sumatra, where the Minangkabau people live. Most of them can be found in Padang and the area around Bukittinggi. And there are almost none of them on the Mentawai Islands.
Today, many of them are used for governmental buildings, banks, and other institutions. And some smaller Minangkabau houses are private homes, usually, the richer ones. Finally, some of them are turned into splendid museums like the Adityawarman Museum in Padang, the History Museum in Bukittinggi, and the most beautiful one- Pagaruyung Palace in Batusangkar.
Architectural style of the Minangkabau houses
There is a specific vernacular architectural style that is traditional for the Austronesian peoples. Its buildings are called Rumah Adat. Most of the Austronesians have their own type of Rumah Adat, and the Minangkabau houses are one of them, called Rumah Gadang.
There are two main sub-styles of Rumah Gadang- Koto Piliang and Bodi Caniago.
- Koto Piliang houses: they are aristocratic, with raised floors at their two ends called “anjuang”.
- Bodi Caniago houses: they are more “democratic”, with flat floors, without “anjuang”.
In both styles, we can see single, double, triple, and even quadruple-horned roofs. In addition, there is usually an entrance façade in the middle of the house’s length, again with a horned roof. The horns are called “gonjong”. The old versions of these houses used thatched roofs, but now almost all of them are with tiled roofs.
These two sub-styles are applied to several types of Minangkabau houses and buildings. As mentioned above, the traditional ones are residential houses, aristocratic buildings, and rice barns (rankiang). But today, the horned-roof style is also applied to many modern buildings in West Sumatra- banks, government institutional buildings, and even some mosques (like the Grand Mosque of Sumatra in Padang), as well as some modern residential buildings.
Where to see the best Minangkabau houses
We should start from the core of the Minangkabau land- the area around Mt Marapi. Here used to be the center of Pagaruyung Kingdom.
Batusangkar is a small town, located southeast of Mt Marapi. It is famous for the most beautiful Minangkabau house (Rumah Gadang)- this is Istano Basa Pagaruyung- Pagaruyung Palace, the restored palace of the Pagaruyung kings. Today, it is turned into a museum, one of the most popular tourist attractions in West Sumatra.
The main building of Pagaruyung Palace was built in Koto Piliang style, with a quadruple roof and ornamented walls. It has three floors. Besides it, there is a large rice barn (rankiang), and two smaller houses behind the main palace.
There is another, smaller palace called Istano Silinduang Bulan, located on the same road as the Pagaruyung Palace. Again, it is in Koto Piliang style, with two rankiang on both sides. After many restorations, today it is also turned into a museum but is much less visited.
You can see many other smaller Rumah Gadang, mostly residential or government buildings in Batusangkar.
Balimbing (called also Balimbiang) is a small village, located between Batusangkar and Lake Singkarak. It looks like most of the other villages in this area, and you can see here and there some small residential Minangkabau houses.
But among them, a bit remote, beside one of the small roads, you can see a different house. It is called Rumah Tuo Kampai nan Panjang and is considered the oldest surviving and preserved Minangkabau house, probably about 300 years old. It has a thatched double roof. The house is wooden, built on pillars. Today, it is turned into a museum (no entrance fee and there is usually nobody around the house), you can enter inside and see its interior.
Pariangan is a village, located on the southern slope of Mt Marapi. It is considered the oldest Minangkabau village, the route, and the core of this ethnic group. Today, most of its houses are Rumah Gadang in traditional style- more than in the other villages around.
They are not museums, but residential houses, some of them opened as guesthouses. Yes, there is a small museum, presenting the local culture, but the main attraction here is the village itself, beautifully established under the volcano. It offers not only a sense of culture and history but also spectacular landscapes.
This is another village in this area, full of traditional Minangkabau culture. It is known for its crafts, songkek fabric, and ethno art. Again many of its houses are built in Rumah Gadang style. Most of them are residential.
But one of the houses is more special than the others. It is called Rumah Tenun Pusako, and not only its roof but the whole building is richly ornamented with traditional elements. In addition, there is a beautiful garden with a pond beside it, which makes it incredibly picturesque. Today, it is a craft store, where you can buy folk souvenirs, fabrics, clothes, and art pieces. Or you can just explore them like in a museum.
Bukittinggi is the largest city in the Minangkabau highlands. It is not only full of local culture, but also a tourist attraction, presenting several points of interest: Sianok Canyon, the Japanese Tunnels, Fort de Kock Park with the Zoo, its main iconic symbol- Jam Gadang Clock Tower, and more. Here you can see a lot of residential houses, as well as government buildings in Minangkabau traditional style.
But one of the Rumah Gadang is more special than the others. It is located in the middle of the Zoo, and it is called Taman Margasatwa dan Budaya Kinantan. The house is relatively new, today used as the Historical and Ethnographic Museum of Bukittinggi. It has two floors, with a thatched roof and it is richly ornamented. To visit it, you have to enter the whole tourist site that contains this house, Fort de Kock Park, Limpapeh Bridge, and the Zoo, through one of the two entrances.
Finally, we get to Padang– the largest city in West Sumatra and its capital. Padang is not located exactly in the original land of Minangkabau but at the coast of the ocean. Nevertheless, since it is the modern administrative center of the province, it still presents a lot of Minangkabau culture and architecture.
Again, here you can see a lot of Minangkabau traditional houses- governmental (including the Minangkabau Airport) and residential. But one of them is more special, and it is a tourist attraction. This is Museum Adityawarman. It is the main and largest Historical and Ethnographical museum in West Sumatra, presenting not only the history and culture of Minangkabau, but also the natural diversity, the culture of the Mentawai people, and more.
Again, unlike the other Rumah Gadang, this one is fully ornamented, with two rice barns (rankiang) in front of it. It is located in a beautiful garden and today is one of the main attractions in the city of Padang.
These are some of the best examples of Rumah Gadang architecture around the island of Sumatra, mostly in the province of West Sumatra. Of course, there are many more Minangkabau houses in this area, and they not only preserve the local traditions and culture but also create a very exotic atmosphere for visitors. They are one of the iconic symbols of West Sumatra. So, if you plan a trip to this part of the world, include a visit to at least one Rumah Gadang if you want to explore this land in depth.
Check some travel books about Minangkabau people and culture:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
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